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The Boston Phoenix Growing Pains

Lynda Barry delivers a stunningly good coming-of-age novel

By Megan Harlan

OCTOBER 18, 1999: 

Cruddy by Lynda Barry (Simon and Schuster), 305 pages, $23.

The word "cruddy" accurately describes every aspect of Roberta Rohbeson's young life. The adolescent Roberta, who's working on an autobiographical "book" that makes up most of Lynda Barry's frighteningly good novel, begins her story thus: "Once upon a cruddy time on a cruddy street on the side of a cruddy hill in the cruddiest part of a crudded-out town in a cruddy state, country, world, solar system, universe . . . " In a page-long rant, Roberta uses "cruddy" dozens of times to describe her surroundings, her family, herself. And really, she's not overstating the case. Barry's book opens, jarringly, with Roberta's suicide note. And the story of poverty, parental incompetence, and mass murder Roberta goes on to detail is almost unimaginably hideous.

But imagine it you do, with an unsettling sense of exhilaration. Barry, the author of the book and Off Broadway play The Good Times Are Killing Me, takes the darkly giddy mania, clear-eyed insights, and hallucinatory horror of her comic strip about adolescent angst, Ernie Pook's Comeek, and injects them into that most conventional of genres, the coming-of-age novel. But Barry's literary artistry is what makes the result so impressive. She's set the coming-of-age novel on fire, and she's a master at controlling the blaze.

Roberta's saga begins in 1971 in a depressed Western meatpacking town. She's a 16-year-old high-school outcast who drops a lot of acid with Vicky, her trashy best friend, and Turtle, an arch, oblique hippie who is her occasional boyfriend. She lives in a ramshackle rented house with her mother, a cold, selfish nurse who will soon abandon Roberta and her half-sister, Julie. Roberta's father is dead -- and Roberta admits right away that she was the one who killed him.

This terrible episode occurred several years earlier, when Roberta's father, who called himself Billy Badass, took her against her will on a cross-country crime spree. The father-daughter outing culminated in the Lucky Chief Motel Massacre, in which a group of motel residents were slaughtered near a restricted, government-owned part of the Nevada desert called Dreamland. Only a blood-spattered Roberta, her dog Cookie, and three large suitcases full of cash survived the massacre. And today no one but Roberta knows the whereabouts of the money, now hidden in desert caves.

The narrative alternates between Roberta's adolescence, with its drug trips and sexual experimentation, and her dire adventures in 1967 with her father, who had masterminded a complicated plan to steal back the family slaughterhouse fortune from which his own father, a suicide, had disinherited him. Their journey is a scarring affair in which Roberta's father, referring to his kidnapped daughter as his son "Clyde," careens in a dented green DeSoto from one skeevy friend's house to the next, chugs a brew called Old Skull Popper, and manically fast-talks about his days in the Navy and the many methods there are for getting one over on people. A former butcher, he carries a bag of knives, his favorite being a razor-fine blade he's nicknamed Little Debbie.

On one level, Mr. Badass is just a hapless all-American loser, the kind of guy who bellows, "You have nothing to fear 'til you run out of beer." On another, he's the demon father incarnate, a butcher in more than one sense. Yet Barry also manages to make him, if not exactly likable, then at least not without his good points. He counsels his daughter, "No matter what, expect the unexpected. And whenever possible BE the unexpected." And indeed, he possesses the disarming ability to gain control over any situation by throwing it into utter and sometimes comical chaos. Toward the end of her ordeal, Roberta asks, "After all the things that happened, described and undescribed, if I told you I still loved the father would you understand it?" Somehow, you do.

Barry's novel is as sharply crafted as Little Debbie. Though Roberta's opening suicide note warns readers not to "blame the drugs" that she consumes in huge quantities, there is always the distinct possibility that her nightmarish past is, in fact, a hallucination. On the other hand, though many events are outrageous (Roberta deftly dismembers a sheriff who tries to molest her), and some unlikely (Roberta for years hides Little Debbie in her favorite clothing accessory, a sock monkey called Trina), none of it is impossible.

Is Cruddy meant to be taken literally, or is it a gruesome, gender-bending Oedipal fantasy? The answer is never obvious, but something called "dazzle camouflage" is a helpful recurring theme. Roberta, paraphrasing her father, vividly describes it: "It was the Navy that figured out you could paint something with confusions so horror-bright that the eyeballs would get upset to where they refused to see. Battleships were painted this way and the bomber planes just passed them by." There's much that's horror-bright here, but it's the stealthy activity beneath the gory glare that ultimately settles in your mind. After offering up a hysterically violent and scarily funny spectacle, Barry then moves in for the kill: a story that uncompromisingly evokes the sheer vulnerability, cold fears, and searing tactility of childhood. But you'd never feel these deeper qualities so intensely without all the dazzling camouflage.

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